My Los Angeles: Chili John’s in Burbank

chilijohnsAlthough I had suffered through several lean years while I lived in Southern California, my lowest point was definitely the summer I spent working in the fabled San Fernando Valley. It’s amazing how many people in Los Angeles can fall into this same trap, taking any job necessary, just to get by. I still think of all the aspiring actors, headed to so many fruitless auditions, hoping for one slim shot at success. If you live in Los Angeles, these lovely people are usually your bartenders and servers. Luckily for me, I was never an aspiring actor, but my position in the entertainment industry wasn’t any more promising — I toiled as a lowly grip that summer, busting my hump on a handful of B movies, short films and, worst of all, infomercials.

The upside to lugging around “C-stands” and “mombo combos” was that I happened to stumble upon Chili John’s while commuting to a sound stage in Burbank. I can’t remember all of the hazy details at this point, but as a longtime fan of the classic greasy-spoon aesthetic, I do recall being intrigued by the mere look of the restaurant, which was simple yet venerable. Of course, Chili John’s is rather difficult to miss — the building features a wonderful vintage neon sign, and its entire exterior seethes nostalgia. The interior of the restaurant also invokes a bygone era: the centerpiece of the Chili John’s dining room is its long, U-shaped service counter — exactly the type of thing that no one would even bother to fabricate today, as photogenic as it is.

One of Jonathan Gold’s recent columns in the L.A. Weekly reminded me of Chili John’s this week, triggering a small culinary epiphany: that perhaps Chili John’s might sell their chili frozen by mail-order. If you have been keeping up with this blog lately, then you’ll know that mail-ordered specialty foods have been my thing this winter — I already have a few pounds of sausage en route from Bailey’s Andouille in Louisiana. As it turns out, Chili John’s also offers the mail-order option, although nothing will be shipped from Burbank until January.

With Chili John’s, it’s extremely important to know what to expect. I say this because a bowl of their famous chili boasts a greasy fluorescent ring that may cause some people to balk (the oyster crackers capture this trademark day-glo orange particularly well). For those folks who typically order a salad as an entree, or who peel the skin off of fried chicken, or dab a slice of pizza with a paper napkin, Chili John’s probably has a little too much horsepower. Please keep that it mind.

One other thing: Chili John’s insists that the best way to reheat their chili is via a double-boiler, since direct heat can alter or burn the spices. I understand the theory here — and maybe I shouldn’t even question the oldest restaurant in Burbank — but frankly, I’m not 100% convinced that these claims are entirely true. Still, I love the fact that Chili John’s offers this caveat. It implies an inherent sense of old-school pride, and I can respect this sentiment wholeheartedly. Enough, in fact, to follow their directions to a tee.

3 comments to My Los Angeles: Chili John’s in Burbank

  • Green Eagle

    I have a movie memory about Chili John’s too. I first discovered it when I was working on “The Rocketeer”, which has an old diner in it. We were working at Warner Brothers, and one day we drove by Chili John’s, and it sort of became our hangout for the show — kind of like Maigret always drinking the same drink during a case.

    The chili is certainly more like Cincinnati style than most of what you get out here, but it is great- it’s hard to get a better meal in the valley, as far as I’m concerned.

  • Can you still order Chili Johns food for home delivery via UPS, FedEx, USPS?

    Thanks

  • I don’t know. I hope so!

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